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Twenty-One Novel Poems
Suzette Haden Elgin
Sams Dot paperback $9.95
review by Steve Sneyd
Suzette Haden Elgin is best known as a science fiction novelist; with books like the iconic feminist SF work Native Tongue drawing on her other professional career as a linguist. She has also, however, had a very long involvement in science fiction poetry. In 1977 she founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). The continuing active survival to this day of that organisation for the field owes much to her contribution to its earlier years, initially as the first editor of its magazine, Star*Line, and then as the SFPA's first president. She has also written analytical essays, and a 'how to' book, now in its second edition, relating to this poetry genre.
Elgin is also, of course, herself a poet, and in this book brings together the titular number of poems. The word 'novel' in the title, incidentally, has built-in duality of meaning, since these narrative poems can be regarded as, in effect, condensed (the longest is four pages) novels. They thus reflect poetry's capability to successfully compress to an essence what in prose would require far more space to convey. Most, incidentally, are science fiction on a wide variety of themes and extrapolations from our current societies into near or far possible futures, although a few are arguably science fantasy, and a couple fantasy per se.
A note to the author's preface, by the way, offers consolation to fellow writers whose record-keeping suffers glitches with the years, since Elgin explains that the reason only one place of prior publication, of just one poem, is credited (to Farah Mendleson's 2006 Glorifying Terrorism SF anthology), is not because that poem, What We Can See Now, Looking In The Glass - about family dynamics under a near-future dictatorship relying for its power on control of the scarce water supply - is the only one to have appeared before, but rather that she has lost track of where various others had previously been published!
The preface mentions also an interactive element in bringing the book to its final form, in that she revised some of the poems in response to comments received when she posted earlier drafts on her website (where, incidentally, additional material relating to the book is posted, at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin).
A further feature to note is also novel, or at any rate very rare, to find accompanying a poetry collection. It's also one potentially useful as well as involving and even enlightening for the reader. This is that the poems themselves are followed by, in effect, an explanatory and exploration-inviting appendix, a section headed readers' guide. This consists of the author's own prose analyses of her intentions for each poem, and its content and meaning, in each case followed by questions about the piece and topics for discussion arising from it, designed to evoke in the reader consideration of how to respond to that individual work's scenario, and focus further consideration of the implications.
These would be useful stimuli and guides to discussion if the book were used by a reading group, or as focus of an SF convention panel, indeed to a tutor using Twenty-One Novel Poems as in-class or assignment material on an SF or poetry course in, for instance, an adult education context.
I would, however, strongly recommend not reading this readers' guide before you read the poems, to avoid being pre-agendaed, rather than coming to them fresh and able to receive your own initial impressions clearly.
Picking out a small selection of the individual poems, to give an indication of the book's content, two in particular reflect the author's other role as a linguist. Forming part, Elgin says, of a planned, sequence about an extra-planetary corps of linguists, in a sense they form a mirroring pair, each reflecting on situations where the exo-linguist's situation becomes problematic, in one case for the recipient culture, in the other for the arriving outsider. In The Visiting Linguist, discovery of the corpse of the eponymous figure leads to the spread of terror among those aliens whose tongue was to be studied, lest they be blamed for the death, while The Traitor Linguist betrays her profession due to another terror, that gut fear she inescapably feels in the presence of the, to her, monstrous-of-aspect beings whose language she has been sent to record and analyse.
Another pair among these poems explore elections in an alternative history USA, including one set in a very different 2008; whereas, on our multi-verse strand, the Obama candidacy enthused the electorate, resulting in massive voter turnout, in the similiar-but-different 'Elgin world' of last year, the kind of apathy born of the message of that 1960s graffito, "Don't vote, it only encourages them" became the ruling paradigm.
Unintended Consequences, Heaven Knows is a prose poem-ish reductio-ad-absurdum/ 'be careful what you wish for' take on US religiosity, although also readily interpretable as relevant to other contemporary upsurges in youth fundieism, like the Islamic. It is the more effective for being laidback in tone rather than anti-preacher preachy, and achieves an intriguing ambiguity in its picture. I hope I'm not being a spoiler (it's not often there's a need to say that in a poem context, but this, like other pieces here, does clearly illustrate how much of its tool-kit poetry abandoned when, to generalise, it withdrew from the field of narrative fiction to leave to prose writers whole potentially reader-hooking swathes of story suspense) in adding that the poem builds up to a plot twist involving the arising of real, magically effective, powers achieved through prayer. The result: a horrid shock for all adults, religious and non/ anti-religious alike.
Rocky Road To Hoe, in its portrayal of an unwanted power to receive communication from the ostensibly inanimate that proves in fact capable of suffering, particularly at human hands - "stones are everywhere./ Everyone else, being stone deaf, collects them./ Speaking to her from the fingers of friends and strangers alike,/ they told her how it felt. To be mined." - emphatically depicts the all-but-unbearable impact on the human recipient of such knowledge of pain. This strong poem's theme, of unanticipated, unwanted voices demanding hearing, is elsewhere in this collection too, for example reflecting bacterial life bearing witness.
Among the many other topics explored among these poems are the near-future fate of the neglected elderly, including, effectively, exile into near-Earth orbit; the ending of sexual activity within a quadripartite alien relationship. Happy Valentine; and, in the dramatic prose-poem monologue, What Became Of The Beautiful Dragons, a taking to extremes of the archetypal townie's dilemma : having moved to a rural area in search of peace and tranquillity, how can he cope with the oh so disturbing nature of the neighbour's livestock? As you'd imagine, his attempts to come to terms with the situation prove blundering in the extreme, but the poem works at two levels - as comedy of future manners, and as a meaningful meditation on the nature of misunderstanding.
The moving Mainstreaming looks at the attempt to introduce an adopted alien child into human education, a shoehorning process requiring that she be made to conform to this new environment's society both behaviourally and, at least in part, physically.
That the future won't change politicos' determination to spin rather than present their voters with reality is at the core of the response when an alien looking as lovely and harmless as a flying carpet, but in fact a merciless killer of humans, manages to enter a supposedly impenetrably safe dome-city.
In Bringing In Frost's Morgan, the poet's recollection of how, in childhood, she was deeply emotionally upset, by the image of the abandoned helpless colt in Frost's poem triggers a free-associative mind journey, exploring how sorrow is both born and borne through the power of words, which takes in recall of an account of refugee experience; from these arises a recounting, implicitly portraying hope despite the knowledge of others' pain, of mind-birthed images of wonder - "Perceiving themselves only as sheets of bright blue light (...) the stone mountains/ are flying away in formation, doing to-and-fros". As outgrowth of this illusion-stemming metaphor, escape in a sense to, rather, reform reality, there finally stems mature consideration of how the creative process, having initially arisen unwilled and unplanned, must next be shaped to fill out its potential.
Another meditation, painterly in its images, Cornfield Crane, I read as inspired by knowledge of the ancient belief that the first human alphabet was created after observing the shapes made by that bird species' enigmatic movements, ones we have traditionally anthropomorphised as being intended as dances. In Elgin's poem, having pictured, as it were, the ideal or Platonic crane, perfection in its every movement, amid appropriate archetypally-beautiful surroundings, "Wading in yellow lilies (...) emerging from clouds,/ flashing across round buttery moons", she then contrasts that wonderfulness with the ""stilted, clumsiness" of a specific real-life crane, witnessed attempting a dance that proves "all tangles" amid a roughness of weeds. The bird has not achieved, probably will not ever achieve, grace, leaving the human viewer embarrassed on its behalf. Yet something has been achieved on the bird's clumsy way to completing the full sequence of ritual-like actions inescapable instinct has demanded it, like all other members of its species, qualified and unqualified alike, must attempt. What remains, after apparent futility and fiasco has ended, is a messaging: "symbols she tracks in threes... framed in ice." To me, this implicit conveying of meaning, however inexplicably obscure it may remain, metaphorically conveys also the difficulty, yet necessity, of attempting communication whatever the obstacles. (Though, I should add, the writer's own interpretation of this poem's meaning is very different!).
Finally, a mention of two exceptions to the, in general, use of free verse in the poems collected here� One is titled Ornamental Chantefable - a chantefable is a mixture of prose and verse, akin in nature to the Japanese haibun, although where the latter's poem content is unrhymed syllabic verses, usually haikuform, the verses here are monorhyme (or near-rhyme where pyramid is rhymed with red and spread - e.g. aaa, etc.), triplet stanzas, in groups of three, and in one case four.
In essence, the verses create pictures of a world, then in the prose poem-ish prose sections a harpist-narrator contemplates, in the third person, creation, inadequacy, transience and other ways in which his relationship with what is made, indeed with what he perhaps alone has made, is beautifully unsatisfactory. Here is a piece perhaps belonging to the school of decadent fantasy which is such a persistent underground stream through genre writing ever since the fall of the Second Empire in France.
The other such exception, Leafenkind Ballad, rhymed aabb etc, is a woman/ dryad dialogue: it has a songlike air, and indeed the author suggests it be sung to the tune of Le Roi Renaud. It is also even more time-and-place unspecific than the chantefable, which does have passing mentions of hair-colour, champagne, a cigarette, and ormulu, etc, to at least tangentially venn it to our world, albeit in general a timeless mood-piece. Gentle, pleasingly colourful, both are most untypical of the collection: by their very contrast they thus bring into sharper relief the way these 'novel poems' are generally wedded to the conveying of ideas, often dystopian, of change and possibility, and doing so by well-paced narrative allied to specific creation of place, time, and person.
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